Group of Five for the Sahel: Briefing and Consultations
Tomorrow (18 May), the Security Council will hold its biannual briefing and closed consultations on the counter-terrorism Group of Five for the Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S), formed in 2017 by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger (G5 Sahel). Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations Martha Pobee is expected to brief, presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on the FC-G5S. Executive Secretary of the G5 Sahel Eric Tiare and a civil society representative are also anticipated to brief.
The G5 Sahel member states have been beset by increasing divisions. The meeting tomorrow follows Mali’s decision on Sunday (15 May) to withdraw from all G5 Sahel institutions, including the FC-G5S. Mali’s transition authorities—headed by president Assimi Goïta, leader of coups d’état in 2020 and 2021—announced in a statement that the decision was made after some G5 members had blocked Mali’s assumption of the body’s rotating presidency. Mali had been due to take over the role in February, but Chad has remained in this capacity. Mali’s statement also criticised “a state outside the region for desperately seeking to isolate Mali”, which appeared to be a reference to France, with whom its relations have deteriorated over the past year.
The Secretary-General’s report (S/2022/382) on the FC-G5S, dated 11 May, had already alluded to the negative impact of “the highly volatile political and security situation” on the effectiveness of the FC-G5S. Burkina Faso experienced a coup d’état on 23 January amid growing frustration among the public and the military over the deteriorating security situation. Meanwhile, Chad is the third country in the region conducting a political transition, following the death of long-time president Idriss Déby in April 2021 during fighting with rebels and the subsequent unconstitutional taking of power by the military. “I am deeply concerned by the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, as well as by the potentially debilitating effect the uncertain political situation in Mali, Burkina Faso and beyond will have on efforts to further operationalise the G5-Sahel Joint Force,” stated the Secretary-General in his report.
During tomorrow’s meeting, Council members may express regret at Mali’s decision. They are likely to highlight the continued need for regional cooperation and multilateral approaches, as no one country can resolve the problem of terrorism alone. Members may stress the importance of what the four remaining members of the G5 Sahel decide, in reaction to Mali’s announcement, and of continuing to support these countries. Some may also call for dialogue among the G5 Sahel states in order for Mali to return to the sub-regional body, while raising concerns about the security gap that Mali’s withdrawal creates not only for Sahel countries but the entire region.
Some members may repeat their calls for Burkina Faso and Mali to establish new transition timetables and for the restoration of constitutional order in these countries as well as in Chad. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) continues to negotiate with Malian and Burkinabe authorities on timetables. Frustrated by Mali’s delays in fulfilling the initial 18-month transition timetable, ECOWAS imposed economic and financial sanctions on the country in January. On 5 May, the foreign ministers of Mali and Togo announced that Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé would mediate between Bamako and ECOWAS.
Moreover, there have been other major changes to the regional security landscape that are likely to be considered at tomorrow’s meeting. On 17 February, France, allied European countries and Canada said that they would fully withdraw their forces in Mali from Operation Barkhane and Task Force Takuba within six months. Operation Barkhane is France’s Sahel-wide counter-terrorism force and Task Force Takuba is a European special forces mission established in Mali in 2020. This decision came amid tensions with the transition authorities and the reported deployment in December 2021 of personnel from the Wagner Group, the Russian private security company. In a joint statement on the planned departure, France, Canada, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and 20 other European and African countries said they would “continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region”, focusing on Niger and West African coastal countries, and that they had begun consultations to determine the form of this cooperation by June 2022.
During tomorrow’s briefing, Pobee is likely to mention the joint assessment of security in the Sahel that the UN, the AU, ECOWAS, and the G5 Sahel have been planning. Visiting the region earlier this month, Secretary-General António Guterres announced while in Niger that the former president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, would lead the joint assessment team. Council members could be interested in discussing with Pobee how Mali’s withdrawal from the G5 Sahel affects the planned assessment.
In light of the FC-G5S’s setbacks and fragility, Council members are expected to highlight the importance of other regional security mechanisms. Some members may call for support to complementary initiatives such as the Nouakchott Process (created in 2013 to increase security cooperation in the Sahel-Sahara region), the Accra Initiative (launched in September 2017 by Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo to prevent the spillover of terrorism from the Sahel) and the ECOWAS Standby Force. Concerns could be expressed tomorrow about the growing threat that Sahel-based terrorist groups pose to coastal West African countries. The latest demonstration of this was the 11 May attack in northern Togo that killed eight Togolese soldiers and wounded 13.
Other key issues for tomorrow’s session include the human rights situation. Members may stress the need for counter-terrorism operations to comply with international humanitarian law and human rights law, and repeat calls for independent investigations into recent alleged abuses, such as the reported execution of hundreds of civilians in the central Mali village of Mourah in March.
Council members are also expected to reiterate that security measures need to be complemented by stronger approaches to address root causes of instability, such as underdevelopment, weak governance and climate change in the Sahel, including through the UN’s Sahel strategy. They may draw attention to the humanitarian situation—a 14 April OCHA humanitarian update reported that there are 1.8 million internally displaced persons in Burkina Faso, 350,000 in Mali, and 140,000 in Niger, with an additional 140,000 refugees in the region—and raise concern over rising food insecurity exacerbating the situation amid the increase in global food prices.
Ghana, as the West African Council member, has championed ECOWAS responses to the coups d’état in Mali and Burkina Faso. It signed the February joint statement on the decision by France and European countries to withdraw their counter-terrorism operations from Mali and to undertake consultations on strengthening cooperation with Niger and coastal West African states to combat the terrorism threat. Since reports emerged of the deployment of the Wagner Group to Mali, Russia has been supportive of Mali’s transitional authorities, often with China’s backing. This dynamic has appeared to polarise Council discussion on Mali and prevented agreement on Council statements on Mali in January on the political transition and in April on alleged human rights abuses. Russia also apparently softened language in the initial press statement drafted by the A3 (Gabon, Ghana and Kenya) that Council members issued on the coup d’état in Burkina Faso. Next month, the Council will need to renew the mandate of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).